Moving at the Speed of Creativity by Wesley Fryer

A Low Kilobit MP3 Mystery

Here’s a question I’d love for someone to answer: Why does NCH Software, creators and distributors of both free and commercial versions of Switch software for converting audio file types, claim they must charge an extra $2.50 US on top of $40 US (normal price) or $30 US (sale price) to provide:

Mp3 Patent License Fees select for legal use of joint stereo or low bitrate under 32kbps mp3 mode

NCH Software: Why charge for 16 kbps encoding in Switch software?

This seems highly unusual since the free, open source Audacity software program uses the free LAME encoder and can export low bitrate 16 kbps audio files fine.

Audacity Exports 16 kbps files fine

This seems like a ploy by NCH Software to encourage more people to upgrade to the paid version of Switch software, rather than a legitimate claim. I don’t understand how Audacity can support low kilobit mp3 exports via LAME without a problem but Switch creators can’t unless they charge a fee. If you can explain this I’d love to read your comments.

I used Switch this evening to convert audio recordings from last Friday’s TCEA Area 7 Technology Conference in White Oak, Texas, which I recorded on my iPhone using the free Cinch app, from 64 kbps mp3 format to WAV format. I needed to convert to WAV so I could normalize the audio using Levelator software, free from the Conversations Network. I needed to convert the WAV file the Levellator created into small, lightweight, 16 kbps mp3 files I could upload to the Fuel for Educational Change Agents podcast channel.

The file size difference between 64 kbps mp3 and 16 kbps files are significant. As an example, here are the different file sizes I worked with this evening publishing Randy Rodgers’ presentation, “Unleashing Creativity: Web 2.0 Tools for Creativity and Innovation.” This audio recording is 54 min, 51 sec long.

  • Original 32 kbps mp3 file created by Cinch app: 26.3 MB
  • WAV version converted by Switch: 583.4 MB
  • Normalized WAV version created by The Levellator: 583.4 MB
  • 16 kpbs version compressed by Audacity: 6.6 MB

In this example, you can not only see the HUGE file size differences possible using mp3 compression, relative to the uncompressed WAV format, but also the benefit of further compressing mp3 files to low bitrate, 16 kbps versions. I created a simple graph to further visualize these differences. (I used the free, online NCES Graphing Tool and made a screenshot of the finished graph with Skitch.)

Audio File Size Comparisons

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6 responses to “A Low Kilobit MP3 Mystery”

  1. Kent Chesnut Avatar
    Kent Chesnut

    If I understand it correctly, Fraunhofer owns the patent to the MP3 algorithm itself.  Use of an MP3 encoder in a product requires licensing by them.  My guess, NCH doesn’t want to get sued. 

    Have a look at the about page on the LAME website (… noting that

    “Using the LAME encoding engine (or other mp3 encoding technology) in your software may require a patent license in some countries. ”

    I’m not sure how this plays out with individual users… I know that AP tests for languages require the use of the MP3 format – and suggest using Audacity (which uses LAME).

    Someone let me know if my understanding is wrong.

    Have a great day,

  2. Jason :) Avatar

    Hey Wes: the short answer is that LAME isn’t appropriately licensing the technology.  See the Wikipedia article for details:

  3. Wesley Fryer Avatar

    Thanks to you both, Kent and Jason. Interesting… I did some research Googling for “Fraunhofer LAME” and found – The FAQs on the site explain licensing for private, non-commercial uses is NOT required but if you’re a software developer (like NCH) you DO have to pay:

    The royalty schedule includes PC software for the CODEC at $2.50 to $5 per unit:

    That’s where the $2.50 added charge for the commercial version of Switch comes in, I’m betting. Not sure why it’s $2.50 instead of the higher $5… I’m certainly not complaining!

    I need to test this but last fall when I was teaching at UNT in Denton, Texas, I used the free version of Switch to encode my recorded audio lecturecasts on Windows 7. I am pretty sure the Windows version permitted compression with the free version of Switch down to 16 kbps. I need to test this and confirm/verify.

    Since schools are using Audacity and LAME non-commercially, it doesn’t sound like the licensing / royalty requirements would kick in / be needed.

    I wonder why Switch can convert ANY bitrate mp3 without the licensing fees being paid? The NCH site indicates it’s only required for low bitrate encoding, but I don’t see anything about licensing just required for low bitrate situations on the website.

    It’s interesting to note that if you are making revenue with your use of mp3 files, according to the royalty website you must provide 2% or 3% of your total revenue to Fraunhofer. I’m not sure what the difference between mp3 and mp3PRO is, but they have different applicable royalty rates.

    I wonder if commercial podcasts/netcasts like TwIT pay licensing fees?

  4. Christopher Johnson Avatar
    Christopher Johnson

    It seems like this company used a dirty (yet far too common) trick: Wait until your user is most of the way through the purchase and then spring some fees on them.  That way, they don’t have to include the licensing costs in their overall cost-of-goods-sold like they should.

    Unfortunately, most people are pretty committed to the purchase by the time they see a screen like that. And while I personally try to not do business with people who do things like that, I admit that I sometimes go through with the purchase anyway. I wonder if the sense of betrayal it causes in their customers is worth the money they save?

    But it’s not the worst I’ve seen: A colleague came to me one time with a question about a new piece of software she had purchased for doing some audio manipulation. The program had an uncanny resemblance to Audacity and sure enough, when I went into the documentation, it said something to the effect of “based on the freely available program Audacity” hidden away in a corner. They charged her $30 for what was basically Audacity with a simple plugin included.

  5. Ryan Collins Avatar

    I’ve installed the LAME component for Quicktime (I’ll need to dig up the URL if you want it, I can’t remember how I did it now. 🙂 and also installed the Quicktime Player 7 from the Snow Leopard install DVD (it’s an optional install). With Quicktime Player 7 I can convert between all the audio formats that Quicktime supports, and convert between video formats.